Inspired by Past, Kingsley Adds to Tradition with 1st Championship since 2005

By Scott DeCamp
Special for

November 25, 2023

DETROIT – When Kingsley head football coach Tim Wooer was presented the MHSAA Division 6 championship trophy Saturday night at Ford Field, he turned, raised it over his head, and acknowledged the roaring throng of orange-clad Stags fans in the stands.

Community, tradition, and history mean everything to the 1998 Kingsley alumnus.

All of those things were recognized and on display during and after Kingsley’s 38-24 victory over Almont, which secured the Stags their second Finals championship and first since 2005.

Kingsley senior Eli Graves made history in his own right. He rushed for 210 yards and four touchdowns, plus he accounted for three two-point conversions, for a total of 30 points to tie the all-division 11-player Finals record for points in a game by one player.

“We have the best O-line in D6, so it’s pretty easy to run behind those guys,” Graves said. “When they get the job done, it makes my job easy. And I’ve just got a coach that trusts me with the ball.”

Wooer believes in his players, present and past. They share a special bond, which was apparent during the postgame press conference after Kingsley put a memorable finish on its 12-2 season.

Eli Graves (2) follows teammate James Pearson upfield. Graves was one of four Stags players Wooer brought to the postgame press conference. Wooer also brought assistant coach Connor Schueller, a fullback on the 2021 team, whose mother Trina Schueller died from COVID-19 in October 2021.

“I think the reason I’ve got him in here tonight is because sometimes as a coach – and this is true of (the late) Justin Hansen, too – there’s a shift of where you’re supposed to be the role model,” an emotional Wooer said, pausing to collect himself. “You’re supposed to be the role model for players, you’re supposed to teach them everything. 

“And then there comes a time when your players teach you about life. And Justin Hansen did that for sure, and so did Connor Schueller. Two pretty important people in our lives in our community.”

Hansen was a captain on Kingsley’s 2002 conference championship team. He was a special-ops Marine, who was killed in action in July 2012.

On Saturday, Wooer wore a red T-shirt with the letters “USA” on the front and the name “Hansen” on the back. 

“It’s truly taken me about 10 to 11 years to be able to talk about it. But I can remember as I driving out of town that evening, crying and sobbing and being angry and having all these emotions, I wanted to make sure that he was always remembered,” Wooer said, his eyes welling up before a momentary pause to compose himself. “So he was here today, and he was remembered.”

Graves put on a performance that will not soon be forgotten. The wiry 6-foot-3, 175-pounder scored on TD runs of 3, 30, 5, and 6 yards. 

Graves tacked on a pair of two-point conversion runs, and he hauled in a two-point conversion pass with some fine footwork along the sideline.

“He’s a good player downhill. Not much to say about it,” Almont senior Ayden Ferqueron said. “The wing-T is hard to stop. When you’ve got a running back that goes downhill and able to follow his blocks, see holes, and hit them (it’s tough to stop).”

Kingsley outgained Almont in total yards (371-191), holding a big advantage in rushing yardage (331-174) and an edge in its timely passing game (66-17).

Stags junior tight end Chase Bott caught a 35-yard TD pass from senior Gavyn Merchant, and senior Skylar Workman ran in the two-point conversion for a 30-17 lead eight seconds into the fourth quarter.

Almont hung around throughout the game, pulling within 30-24 on senior Cole Walton’s 35-yard TD pass from senior Chase Davedowski and sophomore Sean O’Neil’s PAT with 7:55 remaining. 

Max Goethals (11) pulls in a pass for the Stags. But every time the Raiders pulled within striking distance, the Stags had an answer and it usually came from Graves, who put it away with his final TD run with 2:19 left.

Almont, which was making its first Finals appearance since 2019 and looking for its first title, finished with a 12-2 record.

“Nothing that we didn’t prepare for. They were just more physical off the ball than us,” Almont coach James Leusby said. “Defensively-wise, we got pushed back a little and hadn’t faced that all year, so hats (off) to them.”

Almont senior Chase Battani scored on a 65-yard TD sprint, while Ferqueron ran for a 2-yard score. Ferqueron and Battani led all defensive players in the game with 15 and 13 stops, respectively.

Graves said he wore jersey No. 2 for his brother, Owen Graves, who was part of Kingsley’s 2020 team that had to forfeit in the playoffs because of COVID.

Eli Graves said he did not get the chance to see his brother after the game, but added he’ll probably brag to him about his performance once he sees him. He knows his brother is proud.

“He never got to finish his senior season because they had to forfeit due to COVID, so we always play our hardest for that team because they didn’t get a chance to do this,” Graves said.

Wooer was the architect who helped build Kingsley into the program it has become. His 2005 team defeated Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central, 31-21, for the Stags’ first championship.

Wooer left Kingsley and coached at Traverse City West for a decade before he returned to his alma mater in 2018.

For coaches, comparing state-title teams is like comparing one’s children. You love them all the same.

“They’re both fun,” Wooer said with a chuckle when asked to compare Kingsley’s two title winners. “I would say, people have asked me that question in terms of, ‘Which team was better? How were they similar? How were they different?’ 

“I think the one characteristic when you get a team of this caliber is the character and the morals and the ethics and just the leadership. When I was 24 years old, it was all about having the biggest, fastest, strongest kids. And the longer I coach, the more I understand that having guys like this lead your team is the magic potion.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Kingsley’s Chase Bott (84) makes his move toward the goalline while Chase Battani works to wrap him up Saturday at Ford Field. (Middle) Eli Graves (2) follows teammate James Pearson upfield. (Below) Max Goethals (11) pulls in a pass for the Stags. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)  

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

April 30, 2024

CONSTANTINE – Bennett VandenBerg has earned many accolades over the last four years as a three-sport athlete at Constantine.

Southwest CorridorBut the awards aren't what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound standout will remember most when reflecting on his memories as an all-state football player, state champion wrestler and record-breaking throwing specialist on the Falcons' track & field squad.

"I'll remember how I represented our school and pushed myself to be the best I could be in each sport that I played," said VandenBerg, who has earned 12 varsity letters.

VandenBerg has evolved into one of the most accomplished athletes in the state this school year as a senior, especially standing out among those from smaller communities.

This past fall he was named first-team Division 5-6 all-state at defensive end in football before winning the Division 3 Individual Finals wrestling title at 285 pounds in early March at Ford Field.

VandenBerg's final goal is to win the discus title at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on Saturday, June 1, in Kent City to end his Constantine career all-state in all three sports.

He broke the school record in the discus his junior year with a throw of 158 feet, 1 inch; the previous mark of 156-6 had been held by Doug Polasek since 1986. VandenBerg has eclipsed his school record twice this spring, most recently with a personal-best toss of 170-9 in a Southwestern Athletic Conference double dual meet with Schoolcraft and Kalamazoo Christian. He ranks No. 4 statewide in the event regardless of enrollment division. Lawton junior Mason Mayne at 175-4 is the only Division 3 competitor with a better throw than VandenBerg.

"It's really cool to have your name up on the school record board, but I'd like to make that mark more untouchable before I'm done," VandenBerg said. "My goal is to be a state discus champion. I've put in the necessary work for it. It would be nice to end my career that way."

Kyle Rimer, Constantine's veteran boys track & field coach, is most impressed with VandenBerg's leadership and presence in working with the Falcons' younger athletes.

VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. "Bennett loves to compete. Ever since he was a freshman, we've also had him on our 400-meter relay team. That's something he really enjoys doing. He's not just a thrower, but a good overall athlete with lots of drive,” Rimer said. “There's a lot of individuality in track & field, but I think he does a great job of leading the younger kids. He has the drive, accountability and technique to achieve his goal of being a state champion in his throwing events.”

VandenBerg is already a two-time Finals placer in the discus, earning sixth as a junior and seventh his sophomore year. He admits being a little disappointed with his distance at the 2023 state meet.

"In that particular event (discus) you need lots of focus and determination because there are a ton of tiny things you can mess up on that affect your throw. To become better you need to be consistent, show up every day and be willing to put in the work," VandenBerg said. "Right now I'm working on my speed in the circle and quickness in my follow-through."

VandenBerg also has been pleased with his improvement this spring in the shot put. He's increased his distance by over five feet and hopes to break the school record in that event as well. John Kampars (1967) holds Constantine's shot put record at 54-8¼, and VandenBerg's personal best is 48-10 in a double-dual meet this season against Parchment and Centreville.

"Shot put is a difficult event. You need power, but your form has to be top-notch – otherwise it's tough to move that 12-pound ball," VandenBerg said. "I would love to qualify for state in both the discus and shot put and be all-state in each. That would be amazing if I could be a state champion in either of those events."

VandenBerg has put in extra work in the offseason with special instruction from Bill Griffey of Next Throw in Plainwell, along with working with Constantine assistant track & field and head football coach Shawn Griffith.

"Bennett puts a lot of time into working on his throwing. He spends a lot of time in the weight room, and he's a bigger kid who is not afraid to be coached and listens to what other people tell him," Griffith said. "We're excited to see what he can do now that we've had warmer weather recently."

VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft.VandenBerg's motivation this spring follows a tremendous wrestling season that saw him finish 54-0 and capture the 285 championship with a 3-0 win in the title match over Reed City junior Wyatt Spalo.

"I gained 20 pounds of muscle and did everything you need to do to become a better athlete to wrestle the heavyweight division. Winning the title was overwhelming. It was everything I ever wanted, and the first 20 minutes after winning it was relief, especially after losing in the Finals as a junior. I just went into that last match and wrestled smart and confident," VandenBerg said. "My speed and strength gave me an advantage over the bigger heavyweights I faced this year."

Vandenberg, 188-22 with 104 career pins, became the 10th Finals champion in Constantine wrestling history and the first to achieve the feat since Kevin Watkins won a 152-pound crown in 2000.

VandenBerg competed at 189 as a freshman and sophomore. He was a Regional qualifier as a freshman and finished sixth in Division 3 as a sophomore before ending his junior campaign as the Finals runner-up at 215. 

"Bennett is a competitor who hates to lose, and if he does he learns from it. He had a lot of good practice partners on the team his first three years, and he wasn't going to be denied after losing in the Finals as a junior," said Constantine wrestling coach Dale Davidhizar Jr.

VandenBerg played on Constantine's varsity football team for four years. He got a lot of extra playing time as a freshman when Constantine reached the Division 6 Semifinals during in the COVID-shortened season. He led the Falcons in rushing as a sophomore before switching to tight end as a junior. Out of necessity, VandenBerg returned to lead Constantine in rushing and scoring again as a senior.

"Bennett learned a great deal from the older guys on the team his first three varsity seasons. He learned leadership qualities and is a very unselfish kid who is willing to do what's best for his team," Griffith said.

VandenBerg is most proud of Constantine winning a District crown last fall, especially after his senior class went 0-5-1 as eighth graders. VandenBerg posted 164 solo tackles at defensive end during his final high school season and was Constantine's main offensive weapon with 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing on 186 carries.

"Winning Districts as seniors in football was a special moment. As eighth graders, we weren't exactly the most athletic team, but we put in the work as we got older to become successful," VandenBerg said.

VandenBerg has been invited to play for the West team at the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's East-West All-Star Game this summer.

College coaches have shown interest in VandenBerg in all three sports, especially football and wrestling. VandenBerg, who carries a cumulative GPA of 3.989 and scored 1110 on his SAT, is weighing his options in athletics but knows he wants to study either ecology or forestry in college.

"I love being outdoors and doing what I love to do," VandenBerg said.

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Constantine’s Bennett VandenBerg competes in the discus during a home meet his junior season. (Middle) VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. (Below) VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft. (Photos by Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal.)